19 Nov 2005

Heroic Tenors

A happy feature of the King CD is the booklet in German and English: at least 7 pages full of information on the tenor. Then there is the pristine sound of the recordings. Though there is no mention of a concert source I’m fairly sure all the pieces (always followed by generous applause), are derived from the famous Münchner Sonntag Konzerte.

During the sixties and seventies they were regularly broadcasted and duly taped by German collectors who send them to their foreign correspondents. The concerts were proof of the German ‘Wirtschafswunder’ (Economic miracle) when money started to flow once more and they were generous indeed. Some of them found their way unto CD like the Olivero-Labo evening and the Bergonzi-Kabaivanska-Cappuccilli gala. James King was a regular who participated for many years.

The recordings on this CD were broadcast between 1968 and 1979 and are therefore testimony to the tenor’s stamina and vocal longevity; but they also show the slow deterioration of the voice. As is normal, the 1968-1970 recordings (Lohengrin, Parsifal, Frau) are the best. The raw power of the voice is there and tells us why people were stunned when he made his Met début in 1966 and his first “Gott” shook the walls. There was never great love between him and the Met (he was rejected five times during auditions) and after some good initial seasons he would only return in the eighties. King was a real heroic tenor in the old-fashioned way Melchior so much liked: he started as a baritone before becoming a heldentenor. He shows off a good stylish big voice majestically rolling along with a good free top. There is bronze in the sound and his legato is exemplary in the difficult Frau aria. A real beautiful pianissimo he hasn’t which is obvious in his Lohengrin aria where it’s remarkable how he has copied his interpretation from Konya’s classic performance (No coincidence. His career took off while substituting time and again for the Hungarian tenor). The difference with the 1977 and 1979-pieces however is striking. By that time the 54 year old tenor still had an awful amount of voice left, though there were now some chinks in his vocal harness. In the Fidelio aria the top sounds more constricted and he uses a lot of glottal attacks. He also cuts some corners by eschewing consonants. The Prize Song which was never meant to be sung by a baritonal tenor lies clearly somewhat too high. One hears him using great gulps of air and pushing the voice. The four big Otello pieces are sung well; indeed very well for a man his age but he cannot compete with another Konzert given ten years earlier (which appeared on Bella Voce 107.107) where he sings exactly the same Otello extracts with fresher tone and a more free top. Anyway this is a worthy testimony of the now 80-year old tenor who was much underrated during his best days. Time too to celebrate him by publishing his lieder- and especially his operetta-recital.

There is a marked difference with the Botha recital. The South-African tenor is not a Heldentenor but a big lirico; maybe a shade too light for Die Walküre (though Georges Thill is one of the best and most musical Siegmunds on record). I fear the recording doesn’t help either. I’ve heard Botha in the flesh and he sings broader and more voluminous in reality than in this piece where the voice sounds a bit too slender, without heft. In all the other arias and duets he is splendid, using his means for the best. He has made formidable progress since his first recordings 10 years ago. His Wagner singing is much helped by the many hours of work he put into his Italian roles. I heard him sing an exquisite messa di voce in Celeste Aida (he had worked on it for years, he told me) and this pays off. Take his Am stillen Herd: very sensitive singing and no barking. Both the Meistersinger Prize Song and the Lohengrin narrative start with a soft lovely tone spinning out the music in a very poetic manner. The way he caresses “eine Taube” equals Konya’s classic recording. Botha even adds the coda to the aria, cut by Wagner though reinstated on the Konya-Amara-recording. Here too it only proves that Wagner knew this was worthless and I’d much have preferred Botha recording “Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater”. So what is the catch? Well there is one and it’s something Botha cannot do much about. The basic material of the voice is not very rich, not very distinguished, not very personal. In the house this may pass but on record one is too much aware of his lack of outstanding God-given means. Nevertheless I and a lot of other people would be mighty happy to have him in a house-performance of one of the more lyrical Wagner parts as he has so improved musically. Compared with his Italian recital of four years ago (on Arte Nova, which he financed half himself he said) he has once more markedly refined his art and there are few tenors who can boast about such a feat once they have scored their first big successes. Botha is ably partnered by his sopranos and the orchestra, though I don’t like Simone Young sometimes stopping for a second to make a musical point.

Jan Neckers